20 May 2019
Setting goals for your career is useful, but it is the ongoing habits you have that make a real difference to the level of ongoing success your career experiences.
The innate drive to turn repeated actions into habits is strong in humans. Do almost anything enough times and your brain, to conserve energy, will turn it from something you need to consciously think about and decide to do into something that happens almost without noticing i.e. a habit. Habits get a bad rap, as most of us connect the term with the unhelpful and unhealthy things we do—smoking habits; gambling habits; internet habits. Yet habits are one of the most beneficial things we have going for us when it comes to achieving things.
Here’s how habits help your career. Firstly, they conserve energy. The brain, as a muscle, uses five times the amount of energy as any other muscle; especially when we are engaged in deliberate conscious thinking. This is why you often feel exhausted if you have been at a day of training. If you don’t have to think about doing something, because it has been turned into a habit, then you don’t have to put mental energy into it. In fact, conserving energy is the whole point of why our brains turn things into habits in the first place. This conserved energy can then be put to use doing other things, and if those other things are you being innovative, creative and making important contributions, that redirected energy is sure to help your career.
Secondly, habits support your willpower. While there is a little controversy around it, current thinking indicates that willpower is something that gets eroded as your day wears on. As you go about doing the things you do, the good intentions you started the day with begin to disappear as decisions pile up and sap your energy. If something is not a habit you may find that you just don’t have the willpower to follow through and do it. This can particularly impact the discretionary things you might be trying to do to support your career, for example you decide to turn to the TV or consume social media rather than read a business book, or do research on a business idea, or have a stretching conversation with the people you live with.
The beneficial power of habits is subtle and there is not one big habit to cultivate that makes all the difference. Instead there are multiple, small and compounding habits that add together to support career flourishing. The more structured and intentional you get about your career habits the more they can help you achieve a flourishing career and the more you can choose between those that support you and those that don’t.
Start by checking in on the career habits you currently have. List those things you do automatically, that you don’t have to put a lot of effort into. Things that when you think about them you realise they positively impact your career. For example you drop by the desk of colleagues as you go get a coffee each morning and check in on what they are working on, or you automatically start meetings by asking people what their wins have been, or you listen to TED talks or good quality podcasts on your lunchtime walks. Take one week to notice those things you habitually do that actively support your career to flourish. Many of these will be things that have built up over time.
These questions can help you identify some of your more positive career habits;
What do I habitually do to elevate positive emotions in others and myself? Starting meetings with wins would be an example of this.
What do I habitually do to allow myself to get fully immersed in things I do? For example, the times you work from home or in a private space so you do deep work.
What do I habitually do to cultivate supportive relationships at work? Regular coffee with colleagues where you chat and show real warmth and trust would be an example of this.
What do I habitually do to connect me to the bigger picture of my work? For example, having a mindful practice.
What do I habitually do to notice the progress I am making? A practice of reviewing your goals on a Monday morning may be an example of this.
What do I habitually do to make big picture career decisions? The Career Maintenance process [link] I is one way.
What do I habitually do to make sure there is good fit between my career and myself? This might be a good series of habits to promote the quality of your sleep so you are alert.
What do I habitually do to build my career capital? A habit of a Friday afternoon reflection before you leave work may be an example of this.
Only list things you do with little conscious thinking. Don’t list things you do sporadically, or things you would like to do. Make note of these non-habitual things as potential habits for the next step, but don’t fool yourself they are habits before they are.
Give yourself at least a week of noting these habits, as sometimes they are so automatic you will have trouble recognising them. Talk this concept through with the people around you, who observe what you do, as often they see things you don’t. Possibly pair up with a buddy and do a career habit audit together.
When your list is complete spend some time examining it. Ask yourself what your list tells you. Do your career habits hang well together? Do any of them undermine others? Could some habits be less than helpful sometimes?
Armed with your baseline of current career habits now think about any additional habits you want to embed. Spend some time watching the people about you who have the sort of success you would like to have. What are the habits they have? What unhelpful habits did you discover during your audit that need to be replaced with a more helpful habit? What are the things you know you should be doing, but are not? List potential new habits. But, a word of caution—don’t try and embed too many new habits at once, as this will overtax you. Best to work on one at a time, make sure it is solid, then move onto the next. Habit by habit you will experience more career flourishing.
As always wishing you a flourishing career.